Back row: Capt. Kellen Tarkington of New Mexico State University Fire Department, left, Damian Davila and Juan Aristizabal, who are both NMSU student firefighters. Front row: Tyler Laramore, left, and Matthew Holguin, who also are NMSU student firefighters. | NMSU photo by Josh Bachman
The New Mexico State University (NMSU) Fire Department has marked a milestone a century in the making.
This year, the department – founded in 1921 by an NMSU physical plant employee – celebrates 100 years of service to the campus community and its neighboring areas.
What started as an all-volunteer fire brigade is now a full-service fire department, providing emergency response to NMSU’s Las Cruces campus and Doña Ana Community College, as well as mutual aid throughout Las Cruces and Doña Ana County. It also houses a firefighter training program for full-time students attending NMSU and DACC that prepares graduates for careers in the fire service and many other fields.
“Congratulations to the NMSU Fire Department on 100 years of outstanding service to our campus and our surrounding communities,” NMSU President John Floros said. “Each day, these brave individuals make us proud, rushing to help those in need and making NMSU safer for our students, faculty and staff.”
But the greatest source of pride for the department remains its consistently high rankings from the Insurance Service Office. It currently ranks in the top three percent of all fire departments in the nation, boasting an ISO Public Protection Classification of 2/2X. The coveted ranking reflects the department’s continued efforts in risk reduction and commitment to making the NMSU community safer for students, employees and visitors, said NMSU Fire Chief Johnny Carrillo.
“The NMSU Fire Department has a rich history and proud legacy of keeping the university and surrounding communities safe,” Carrillo said. “As we commemorate our historic milestone of 100 years of service, I want to commend our current and former firefighters for doing their part to make our department successful with their unwavering commitment to public safety. Because of their dedication, NMSU is a safer place to learn, work and thrive.”
Carrillo took the helm of the department in 2013 after retiring from the Las Cruces Fire Department, joining a long line of career firefighters who followed in the footsteps of the university’s first fire chief, Willie N. Preciado.
“Chief Preciado was an employee at the physical plant on campus, and he brought us together,” Carrillo said. “He saw the need for it and started us off as a volunteer organization. Back then, it was pure volunteers – comprised of only faculty and staff who worked at NMSU.”
With each passing decade since 1921, the department grew and experienced milestone after milestone that helped shape the organization into what it resembles today. The department’s history includes:
In 1931, NMSU – then known as New Mexico A&M – purchased and installed new fire equipment throughout campus, including 25 fire extinguishers, 1,400 feet of fire hose and a fire cart. The university bought its first fire truck in 1947, allowing volunteer firefighters to respond to calls by vehicle for the first time.
The New Mexico Department of Insurance – now known as the Office of Superintendent of Insurance – issued a mandate in 1958 ordering the NMSU Fire Department to staff at least 10 volunteer firefighters at all times and reclassified its ISO rating to Class 8.
By 1964, the NMSU Fire Department started its student program and began hiring students to serve alongside the volunteer firefighters.
The following year, NMSU built a fire station equipped with state-of-the-art communications capabilities at 1510 Wells St. to house the department – which still uses the facility today.
The number of student firefighters grew to six by 1969, and their average pay was $1.25 an hour. Today, the department employs 14 paid student firefighters who live in dorms at the fire station.
The modern-day NMSU Fire Department began to take shape in the early 2000s. NMSU expanded its fire station in 2002, adding a truck bay and administrative offices to the facility originally built in 1965. It received its first out-fire apparatus, a Pierce Contender Class A Pumper with a 1,250-gallon pump and 500 gallons, in 2011.
In 2014, a year after Carrillo’s appointment as fire chief, he hired the department’s first deputy chief, Louis Huber, who still serves in that capacity, and its first two full-time day career firefighters.
“That’s when we started changing the way we operate,” Carrillo said, “and we started formulating our fire prevention and risk reduction plan.”
That same year, the department improved its ISO standing, receiving a rating of 3/3X and ranking among the top five percent of all fire departments in the nation. Four years later, Carrillo announced that the department earned an upgraded ISO rating of 2/2X.
Today, Carrillo’s staff also includes Capt. John Guerin, Capt. Kellen Tarkington and administrative assistant Mary Ann Ventura.
Guerin and Tarkington work one-on-one with the cohort of student firefighters, who respond to emergency calls throughout campus and Doña Ana County.
“Almost 70 percent of our calls are in support of automatic aid or mutual aid in the county, and about 30 percent of our calls are actually on campus,” Guerin said. “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in our support of the county.”
Recently, the department completed about $320,500 in repairs and upgrades to the fire station in anticipation of its 100th anniversary.
To mark the milestone, Carrillo’s staff created a “100 years of service” logo, which now appears on the firefighters’ uniforms, the department’s fire apparatus, and on newly commissioned challenge coins.
“We’ll be displaying our new logo for the next year or two to celebrate our 100 years of service and our students and staff, who are the building blocks of what you see today,” he said.
For more information, about the NMSU Fire Department and its firefighter training program, click here.